Author : Amnesty International
Type of publication : Article
Date of publication: 2021
Despite Gambian President Adama Barrow’s pledge to reform the country nearly five years ago, oppressive laws curtailing human rights including the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, which were used under former President Yahya Jammeh to suppress peaceful dissent remain operative.
On 14 February 2018, the Court of Justice of Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) issued a judgment that found most Gambian media laws violated freedom of expression. The court asked the government to repeal or amend all criminal laws on libel, sedition, and false news in line with Gambia’s obligations under international human rights law.
However, most of the laws which were used to oppress human rights defenders, activists and journalists during Jammeh’s rule are still in force.
Among the most notorious are: Section 138 of the Information and Communications Act, which gives national security agencies, investigating authorities and the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority the powers to monitor, intercept and store communications for surveillance purposes without effective judicial oversight.
As it stands, the current Criminal Code still contains several clauses restricting the right to freedom of expression, criminalizing sedition as related to the President and providing for stiff penalties, including imprisonment, for those who dare to criticize the authorities – a concern for journalists and human rights defenders. It also allows for the confiscation of publications and printing machines.
Legal provisions muzzle dissenting voices
The Gambian Press Union (GPU) told Amnesty International that the laws continue to create a hostile environment for journalists. While attacks on journalists have fallen under President Barrow, several high-profile arrests have shown the risk of these repressive laws being used to muzzle dissenting voices more widely.
Danger of repressive laws
Despite the many efforts of civil society and the international community, the government has so far failed to pass a new Constitution. Instead, the Gambian parliament rejected a draft Constitution in September 2020. Therefore, Article 69 of the current Constitution, which provides for full civil immunity and limited jurisdiction over criminal proceedings against the President after he leaves office, remains in place.
Despite the many efforts of civil society and the international community, the government has so far failed to pass a new Constitution
The current Constitution also gives blanket immunity to members of the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council and individuals appointed by them, as well as any member of the government or individuals allegedly involved in the 1994 coup d’état. In addition, the death penalty, which was abolished in the draft Constitution, remains. Courts continue to hand down death sentences. Moreover, members of parliament have yet to pass the Prevention and Prohibition of Torture Bill, which has been pending at the National Assembly since last year.
Despite slow progress in reforming repressive laws, Amnesty International welcomed the enactment of the Access to Information law on 1 July 2021, designed to help the public and the media to access information. Another positive development has been the National Human Rights Commission, which was established by an act passed by the National Assembly in 2017 and became operational in 2019. It has the power to “receive and hear complaints from the public on human rights violations, recommend appropriate remedial actions to the Government and seeks appropriate remedial actions on behalf of victims.” The independence of the Commission and adequate resources are crucial for it to carry on being effective and impartial.
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